An ode to the British triangle sandwich

October 23, 2017

At my insistence, the first thing my wife ever did on English soil was buy a ham and cheese sandwich that came in a triangular package. I explained — grinning with nostalgia for my own years living in Lancashire as a poor twentysomething — that buying a pre-made sandwich that comes in a triangular package is one of the most English things you can do.

She bought hers soon after landing at Heathrow, when we came across a WH Smith in Terminal 2. While WH Smith is traditionally a retailer of books, it also sells sandwiches, because all kinds of British businesses keep up a side hustle in sandwiches.

Affordable pre-made sandwiches are everywhere in the U.K.: in supermarkets and petrol stations, museum cafés and train stations, hospitals and community centres, and employee cafeterias. I will bet you a packet of prawn cocktail crisps that somewhere deep in the bowels of Buckingham Palace, possibly in an area reserved for employees, there is somewhere to purchase a tuna on white bread for less than two quid.

The venerable triangle sandwich — seen here with its lesser cousin, the doorstep sandwich. Photo courtesy of Mike Andrews.

The venerable triangle sandwich — seen here with its lesser cousin, the doorstep sandwich. Photo courtesy of Mike Andrews.

All of which is to say, as a first-time traveller to Britain you could be forgiven for ignoring these sandwiches in your search for more “authentic” cuisine, but that would be wrong-headed. Triangle sandwiches are at the heart of British food culture.

A British earl invented the sandwich, it is said, and the people of this land love the sandwich to this day. They will eat them even if they are bad and stale. The awfulness of British Rail sandwiches is remembered as a national in-joke, long after the U.K. privatized the railways in 1994.

The British sandwich, for its part, was becoming slicker and more profitable. By the 1990s it was a two-billion-pound per year industry, thanks to the invention of the see-through plastic box. This allowed sandwiches to be assembled in uniform fashion at giant, centralized sammie factories and sold to supermarkets — and to every other kind of business, eventually.

(The factories give the tabloids the heebie-jeebies because the workers touch the sandwiches with their bare hands; this phobia is also very British.)

Today the people of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland gorge on grab-and-go sandwiches by the millions, for the same reason travellers should: They’re an affordable way to sustain yourself, typically costing £2.50 or less.

Some tips for the sandwich beginner, then?

The common repertoire includes ham and cheese, ham and pickle, BLT, and tuna and cucumber. Observe that British mayonnaise is tangier than American, but not as zesty as Japanese. When a British sandwich advertises pickle within, it does not mean dill pickle (á la North America), but pickle in the sense of Branston Pickle, a brown, chutney-like condiment that all good people enjoy and only haters hate. “Bacon” will be English-style (a.k.a. back bacon) unless otherwise noted.

Cheese and onion, sometimes known as “cheese savoury,” is shredded cheddar and onions mixed up with that tangy British mayo. This can be good, under the right circumstances. It’s also one of the cheapest and most common forms of British sandwich according to The Sandwich Guide, an important resource for anyone who requires factual information about British convenience sandwiches. (For example, you might want to know that the average weight of a prawn sandwich is 169 grams or that the median price of a cheese and onion is £1.20.)

More survival tips: Boots (which is a pharmacy chain that also sells sandwiches) offers the some of the cheapest edible ones. Pret A Manger is a nationwide chain you will encounter in all major British airports (and beyond — they're everywhere), and it sells baguettes and wraps and soups in addition to triangle sandwiches. My favourite there is the crayfish and avocado, but you can’t go too wrong. Marks & Spencer’s sandwiches are great because they’re generous with the fillings — but note that I do not use the word “great” literally; I only mean “pretty good compared with other triangle sandwiches.”

Wherever you buy it and whatever the filling may be, you may find the bread in a British triangle sandwich too dry to be anything beyond a utilitarian holder for the fillings.

Anyway, the point of the British triangle sandwich is not to eat well. The point is to eat expediently. Even the tastiest and most expensive triangle sandwiches are destined to be scarfed down while you’re pushing a luggage cart, or grabbing five minutes on a park bench, or leaning against a wall until your bus rolls up. Embrace this nihilistic way of eating and you may begin to understand some deeply rooted Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward food — and pleasure.

Moreover, the British people often accept mediocrity — in weather, in trains, and so on — with good cheer, as a backwards badge of identity. This "we don't deserve better" outlook is precisely what allowed the convenience sandwich to conquer the country’s lunch-scape in the first place. To learn to love (or at least affectionately laugh at) something so lifeless and limp is to get inside the mind of a British person, at least during the brief moment it takes to push a factory-sealed ham sandwich into your mouth.

Getting there

Keen to grab a triangle sandwich in the U.K.? G Adventures can get you there. Many of our European tours start or end in London — check them out here.

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